There was a moment in one of my first cooking classes that has forever shaped my approach to teaching. I was sautéing a pan of wild mushrooms. As I did so, I described what I was doing and explained the reasons for each step. It was all pretty obvious stuff from my perspective, but it is never a good idea to stand in front of a class saying nothing so I was simply talking to fill the few moments it was taking for the mushrooms to cook. A woman on the front row commented that she was amazed at how much she had learned in those few moments, even though she had been cooking for years. She then said something to the effect of "This is the kind of stuff that should be taught in cooking classes all the time—basics...how and why."
I have never forgotten that moment, or her words. To this day, when I teach a class, my goal is always to explain the underlying techniques. Of course I teach recipes, but the recipes themselves really are secondary. And why wouldn't they be? Recipes are ubiquitous...in this era of food blogs and online food magazines, you can load a search engine box with a list of the ingredients in your fridge and find hundreds of recipes in an instant. Cookbooks abound and cooking shows are on at all hours of the night and day. Lack of recipes does not appear to be a problem. Even with this abundance of recipes, people are still not cooking very much at home. And this is partly because recipes don't teach how to really cook.
I thought of all of this the other night when I was sautéing mushrooms for the pizza that we had for dinner. Since I promised a few days ago that some posts on basic techniques would be forthcoming, I thought the process of sautéing mushrooms would be a good place to start.
The French verb sauter means "to jump". When applied to cooking, the idea is that the items in the pan are "jumping" in the pan as they are tossed or stirred so that all sides of the food being sautéed are exposed to the hot fat and the hot surface of the pan. The goal of sautéing is food that is tender and moist inside and browned, or caramelized, on the exterior surfaces. Since vegetables release moisture when they are subjected to heat and moisture interferes with browning, the exact process for sautéing a particular vegetable is dependent, to some extent, on the moisture content of that vegetable.
Mushrooms contain a lot of water and give that water up very quickly once the cooking process has begun. To caramelize them properly, the pan must be hot when the mushrooms are added and must stay hot until the mushrooms are browned so that any moisture released by the mushrooms will evaporate immediately. So to begin, set the pan over moderately high to high heat (depending on the power of your cook top). When the pan is hot, add enough oil (I use olive oil, but you could use clarified butter, vegetable oil or bacon fat) to just coat the bottom of the pan. The oil should shimmer. If it doesn't, wait until it does. Add a rough single layer of mushrooms to the pan. Do not overload the pan. You should still be able to see the bottom of the pan through the mushrooms.
Overloading the pan will cause the temperature of the pan to drop. Even if there is enough power in the burner you are using to maintain pan temperature, an overcrowded pan will trap the moisture that the mushrooms are releasing. In either case, the mushrooms will quickly be simmering in a pool of their own juices rather than caramelizing in the hot fat. If you don't have a pan large enough to cook all of the mushrooms at once, simply sauté them in batches. If you do need to sauté the mushrooms in batches, it is best to use a non-stick pan so that it can be wiped clean in between each batch.
After adding the mushrooms to the hot pan, don't start tossing and stirring them immediately—they need to have a chance to brown on one side. Let them sit for a moment or two to allow this to happen. When they begin to brown, give them a toss or carefully turn them over. Continue to cook—stirring/tossing once or twice more and reducing the heat a touch if the mushrooms threaten to burn—until the mushrooms are caramelized and tender.
This should take a total of about 2 to 4 minutes. Season the mushrooms with salt and pepper. Because salt encourages food to give up its moisture, the mushrooms shouldn't be salted until they are done browning.
There are many ways to finish the mushrooms at this point. They could be served as is or with the addition of a bit of butter, some fresh herbs and/or some minced shallots and/or garlic.
If the mushrooms have been cooked in batches, you could sweat some shallots and garlic in a little butter and add all of the mushrooms back to the pan to heat them through. Wine, fortified wine or brandy—added to the finished mushrooms and then reduced—makes a flavorful addition. Stock or cream may also be added to create a mushroom ragoût or sauce.
Sautéed mushrooms can be served as an accompaniment to grilled, roasted or pan-fried meats, but they also make wonderful additions to many different food preparations. They make a simple and flavorful topping for crostini, bruschetta or pizza. They can be layered into a classic potato gratin or lasagne. One of my favorite pasta sauces is sautéed mushrooms finished with shallots, garlic, herbs, stock, butter and parmesan. Sautéed mushrooms can be added to rice and other grain pilafs or tossed into a salad. They can be folded into an omelet or added to a frittata or quiche. There are obviously far too many options to even attempt to make an exhaustive list. But once you understand, practice and master the basic technique, any recipe that includes them will seem less daunting. And better still, you will be comfortable making them and improvising dishes around them—at which point you will no longer be just following recipes...you will be cooking.
Sautéed Wild Mushrooms
1 lb. mixed wild and domestic mushrooms (shiitake, oyster, crimini, chanterelle, etc.), whole or cut into uniform pieces
4 T. olive oil
2 T. unsalted butter
1 shallot, finely minced
2 T. minced fresh herbs such as parsley, chives or tarragon
When sautéing mushrooms, do not over-crowd the pan. If necessary, sauté in batches. For each batch, only sauté enough mushrooms to cover the bottom of the sauté pan in a single layer.
Heat a non-stick sauté pan over medium-high to high heat. Add enough oil to barely coat the pan, then add the first batch of mushrooms. Cook, shaking the pan, until the mushrooms are browned, tender and any liquid that they have given off during cooking has evaporated. Transfer the mushrooms to a plate and season with salt & pepper. Repeat with remaining batches, adding fresh olive oil each time. When all mushrooms are cooked, melt the butter in the pan; add the shallots and sweat briefly. Add the mushrooms and heat through over medium heat. Add the fresh herbs; taste and correct the seasoning.
Pasta with Sautéed Wild Mushrooms
3 to 4 T. olive oil
1 to 1 ¼ lb. mixed wild and domestic mushrooms (shiitake, oyster, crimini, chanterelle, etc.), trimmed and sliced
1 large shallot, finely minced
2 to 3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 to 1 ½ c. chicken stock
1 lb. Orecchiette, Penne, Fusilli, Farfalle or other short sturdy pasta
2 T. unsalted butter
2/3 c. grated Parmesan (2 oz.)
2 T. minced fresh herbs such as parsley, chives or tarragon
Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high to high heat. Add enough oil to coat the pan, then add the mushrooms (if your pan is not large enough to accommodate all of the mushrooms in snug single layer, sauté them in batches). Cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until the mushrooms are browned, tender and any liquid that they have given off during cooking has evaporated. Reduce the heat and add the shallots and garlic along with a pinch of salt. If the pan seems dry, add a bit more oil. Cook until the shallots and garlic are fragrant—do not burn. Add 1 cup of the chicken stock and bring to a simmer, scraping up any caramelized bits off of the bottom of the pan. Taste and correct seasoning. Set aside.
While the mushrooms are cooking, bring 6 quarts of water to the boil in a large stock/pasta pot. Add 2-3 Tablespoons of salt. Add the pasta and cook until al dente. Drain, reserving some of the pasta cooking liquid. Bring the mushroom sauce back to a simmer (if it seems dry, add more stock or pasta water) and swirl in a tablespoon or two of butter. Add the pasta along with the herbs and toss to coat. If the sauce seems thin, add more butter and if the pasta seems dry, add more stock or pasta water. Add ½ cup of Parmesan, and toss again. Taste and correct the seasoning. Serve in shallow pasta/soup bowls sprinkled with the remaining Parmesan. Serves 4 to 5.
Wild Mushroom & Fontina Pizza
3/4 lb. mixed wild mushrooms, trimmed and sliced 1/4 inch thick
2 T. olive oil, plus more for brushing
1 shallot, minced
Pizza dough for a 12- to 13-inch pizza, made through the first rise and rested
4 oz. Fontina, coarsely grated
|If using shiitake mushrooms, cut the entire stem off--it is quite tough|
Sauté the mushrooms: When sautéing mushrooms, do not over-crowd the pan. If necessary, sauté in batches. Heat a non-stick sauté pan over medium-high to high heat. Add oil to coat the pan, then add the mushrooms. Cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until the mushrooms are browned, tender and any liquid that they have given off has evaporated. Reduce the heat and add the shallots. If the pan seems dry, add a bit more oil. Cook until the shallots are tender—do not burn. Transfer the mushrooms to a plate and season with salt & pepper.
Build the pizza: On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out into a 12-inch circle. Transfer the dough to a pizza pan or baking sheet that has been lightly dusted with semolina, fine cornmeal, or flour. Using your fingers, push up the edges of the dough to make a slight rim. You may top the crust immediately, or let it rest (covered with a towel) for up to 15 minutes before you add the toppings. Spread a thin layer of olive oil over the crust. Scatter with 2/3 of the cheese. Scatter the mushrooms evenly over the cheese.